WASHINGTON – A House panel approved a defense bill early Thursday that would delay President Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military and limit the commander in chief's authority on slashing the nation's nuclear arsenal.
By a vote of 60-1, the House Armed Services Committee approved the broad, $553 billion defense blueprint that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, slightly increase health care fees for working-age retirees and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lone no vote was Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
The Republican-controlled panel challenged the Democratic president on scores of issues, from building an extra fighter jet engine to his decision-making on the fate of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Emotions were raw over whether Pakistan was complicit in protecting Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden deep inside the country, but the committee rejected an effort to cut $100 million from the $1.1 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars for the reluctant ally in the terrorist fight. The effort failed on a voice vote.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the committee chairman, said the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is tenuous and cutting funds could further damage ties. "We have to use some constraint," McKeon said.
Days after U.S. commandos killed bin Laden, Garamendi introduced and then withdrew an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under his measure, the number of troops would be reduced by 90 percent by the end of 2013. He promised to take up the issue in the full House.
Obama is nearing a decision on the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals that he has promised will begin in July. War-weary lawmakers are pushing for deeper and faster reductions, citing both the killing of bin Laden and a U.S. military operation costing $10 billion a month.
The House will consider the bill the week of May 23, with lawmakers certain to revive many of the budget and political fights that marked the committee's 16 hours of sometimes rancorous debate.
In a series of contentious votes, the panel added provisions that strike at repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the 17-year-old ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.
The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt troops' ability to fight. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.
"I want them to sign off on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.
"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."
In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would undercut readiness are carefully considered. Last month, in testifying to the House panel, the four service chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.
Obama signed the law reversing the ban in December. Final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban wouldn't affect readiness. Military leaders say training should be completed by midsummer, setting the stage for certification.
That timetable — plus strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate — likely will render the House panel's provisions moot.
Still, the committee approved a provision by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would prohibit the use of military facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies and bar Defense Department employees from conducting such ceremonies. The vote was 38-23.
On Tuesday, the Navy abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon certifies openly gay military service later this year.
The House panel on Wednesday also approved an amendment by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of military benefits, regulations and policy. The vote was 39-22.
Earlier in the day, the panel voted to limit Obama's authority to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal and implement a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty overwhelmingly ratified by the Senate in December.
Over the objections of the Defense Department and Democrats, the panel approved an amendment that would prohibit money to take nuclear weapons out of operation unless the administration provides a report to Congress on how it plans to modernize the remaining weapons. The panel also adopted an amendment that says the president may not change the target list or move weapons out of Europe until he reports to Congress. The votes were 35-26.
The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended in 2009 with the expiration of a 1991 treaty. START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The provisions added by the House panel are unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, they elicited a fierce and lengthy debate in the committee.
Provisions in the bill also limit Obama's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. Consistent with recent legislation, the bill also bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States, even for trial.
Smith offered two amendments to undo the legislation, pointing out that some 400 terrorist suspects have been tried in federal courts, convicted and sent to U.S. prisons.
"They're here and being held safely, it proves we can do it," he said. The measures both failed.
The legislation also would prohibit family members from visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay by barring the Defense Department from spending any money on such visits. The provision was a pre-emptive move as the Pentagon is considering allowing family visits.
Frustrated with Obama's consultation with Congress on Libya, the committee unanimously approved a measure seeking "any official document, record, memo, correspondence or other communication of the Department of Defense ... that refers or relates to any consultation with Congress" on Libya.
The bill takes a step toward reviving an extra engine for the next generation F-35 fighter plane despite objections from the administration and Gates that the engine is not needed.
The Pentagon recently notified General Electric/Rolls Royce that it had terminated its contract and work was stopped a month ago, saving $1 million a day. The company said last week it would spend its own money to build the engine.
The bill would force the Pentagon to reopen competition for the engine if defense officials have to ask Congress for more money so Pratt & Whitney can build the chosen design.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called the effort a "back-door way" of getting the engine back in.